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Students navigate tough course in off-campus housing

Universities offer tools and help in calculating costs and finding a place to live outside of residence

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First, a note of consolation: If you're a young university student still living at home, don't – repeat, DON'T – feel like you're falling short of independent, responsible adulthood.

Toronto

You are, in fact, in the majority, particularly at big, prestigious, commuter schools such as the University of Toronto, at which the largest percentage of students still live with their parents, according to the university.

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But the second most popular option for U of T undergrads (apart from first-year students, who live in residences) is to live off-campus. And therein lies the tricky equation of how to afford off-campus digs in pricey Toronto, or in any other university town, when tuition is so high and income during college is typically low to nil.

In a survey last year at U of T, 31 per cent of undergrads other than first-year students lived off-campus. Full-time, young, first-year students at the University of Toronto, similar to most other universities, are guaranteed on-campus accommodations if they want them, encouraging an immersion into university life. But after the first year, a great many students choose the off-campus option. Residences are typically 70- to 80-per-cent occupied by first-year students.

Off-campus housing tends to be cheaper, at least on face value. Yet "it depends on how you define cheaper," said Jennifer Radley, manager of housing services at the University of Toronto.

"If you are just looking at dollars, then certainly it can seem like off-campus housing is cheaper. But off-campus housing doesn't include meals, and then you get into amenities, services, the [on-campus] programming, the convenience, things like that," she said.

So, let's break that down a little.

According to the U of T and its estimates for off-campus costs, monthly rent for a boarding room near the main St. George campus is about $729, and a small bachelor apartment runs around $1,002. Monthly rent for a slightly larger one-bedroom place is about $1,272 and up. These are all based on a 2016 rental report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Conceivably, a renter, paying $1,272 a month, would be spending $10,176 for an eight-month academic year. Of course, this doesn't add in all the vagaries that occur, such as a landlord requesting one month's rent as a deposit, or the extra cost if subletting the place for the summer doesn't work, meaning that you might have to pay more than eight month's rent.

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Yet, for simplicity's sake, $10,176 for an academic year is less than accommodations in U of T's University College, which is between $12,096 and $13,786 for the year (depending on room size and type, as well as meal plan).

Of course, rents don't come with meals, nor the kinds of social and sports programs provided to on-campus residents, nor basic amenities that are sometimes included, such as an in-apartment laundry machine. And food, based on City of Toronto and U of T's estimates for the academic year, costs at least $1,504 to $3,400. The university offers a wealth of cost estimates on its housing services website www.studentlife.utorontoca/hs.

Montreal

McGill University in Montreal also has an extensive set of online estimates, as part of its Frugal Scholar outreach program to help educate students about budgeting. (Even students not attending McGill in Montreal, but wanting to learn to budget beyond mere back-of-the-envelope calculations, would do well to check out McGill's student budget webpages, cost spreadsheets and extensive online tips at www.mcgill.ca/studentaid/finances.)

First-year students are encouraged to live on campus, particularly students from outside Quebec and from other countries. And the school provides a strong support network in the residences for young, incoming students, which is difficult to calculate when comparing on- versus off-campus costs.

"Then we recommend students to rent apartments in subsequent years," said Evelina Balut, McGill's associate director of student aid, who manages the Frugal Scholar program. The school's off-campus housing office has outreach programs to help with this transition, although Montreal tends to have lower rents (shared apartments can be found for $700 to $800 a tenant), and the immediate Le Plateau neighbourhood is geared toward students.

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"And something we do is [list] thrifty options, so they can find more about areas around Montreal where they can save money, eating for less, all that stuff," Ms. Balut said.

Halifax

At Dalhousie University in Halifax, in addition to its Money Matters website, with online fee and budget calculators, the school also has detailed cost-of-living estimates for Halifax, down to gasoline costs ($1.10 to $1.24 a litre) and movie passes ($10.99 an adult). It lists the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment at $1,005 a month.

And again, there are the added services that are difficult to calculate, but which can make a difference, such as a lounge for off-campus students and a Community Assistants program (upper-year students who provide help to other students, including on off-campus housing issues).

Strapped for cash

Yet, how often do students sometimes find themselves simply unable to pay for housing or need serious assistance? At the University of Toronto, Ms. Radley said that 20 to 40 students come each year to the housing office seeking emergency help, although only a small portion are in truly dire straits.

"We try to do as much preliminary education as we can, so students know what to expect when they get here," Ms. Radley said. "But certainly if we do have a handful of those [emergency] cases that come up, our office meets with the student one on one and just goes through some troubleshooting, and works with their resources and the university's resources to see how we can support that student."

Special cases of students seeking serious help, though, usually involve only temporary assistance, such as issues with landlords or their living arrangement being affected by emergency repairs or fire.

Is this kind of outreach to students needed because of the turbulent real-estate markets in Canadian cities? Not necessarily.

Students looking off-campus have the advantage that many landlords seek university students for their dependability. Landlords advertising to students typically make accommodations, such as shorter leases, which can help keep costs lower for students who may be renting only for shorter terms.

"Especially because we've worked with these landlords for years and years, they tend to be more student friendly, and they tend to charge on the lower end of what they could potentially charge," Ms. Radley said.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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